The truth about what motivates you at work

If I asked you what motivates you in your career, what would you say? What do you think motivates employees in general?

Conventional wisdom would say it’s things like compensation, title, reputation, and perks.

But what if I told you that conventional wisdom is wrong? I recently read a paper by Frederick Herzberg about employee motivation. In the paper, Herzberg synthesized the results from 1,685 employee interviews across 12 different investigations. His findings are that there are a set of factors that determine job satisfaction (motivation factors), and that there are a different and unique set of factors that cause job dissatisfaction (hygiene factors).

Motivation v. Hygiene Factors

What is the difference between motivation factors and hygiene factors? Essentially, if an employee is happy with a motivation factor, she (or he) will feel more satisfied with her job. If an employee is unhappy with a hygiene factor, then she will feel more dissatisfied with her job. At any point, you can imagine job satisfaction and dissatisfaction as being opposing sides of a scale. As long as job satisfaction outweighs job dissatisfaction, an employee remains in the current job.

What’s most interesting about Herzberg’s findings is that the factors that conventional wisdom would say are the things that motivate employees are actually hygiene factors.

Hygiene factors are primarily extrinsic:

  • Salary and compensation
  • Title and status
  • Company policies (including perks and benefits)

Hygiene factors also include interpersonal relationships, such as relationships with your manager, peers, and subordinates.

Motivation factors are primarily intrinsic:

  • Achievement
  • Recognition for the achievements
  • Fulfilling work
  • Responsibility
  • Learning and growth

The important thing to remember is that hygiene factors can’t create job satisfaction. At best, they can avoid job dissatisfaction. The less unhappy that an employee is with hygiene factors, the less the “scale” tips in favor of job dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, motivation factors can truly motivate a person and create job satisfaction. Motivation does not mean “getting someone to do something.” Motivation means that the individual who is motivated is willing to take an action of their own volition. Thus, factors like achievement, recognition, learning and growth — these factors produce motivation from within the individual. The happier that an employee is with motivation factors, the more the “scale” tips in favor of job satisfaction.

Insights from applying motivation-hygiene theory

Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory puts some things in perspective for me. The first insight for me has to do with the saying, “An employee doesn’t quit a job. They quit a manager.” Having a poor relationship with your manager means that you are unhappy with a hygiene factor — relationship with supervisor — and this contributes to your job dissatisfaction. Now the scale has tipped towards job dissatisfaction, and if the scale has tipped far enough, you are ready to quit. (I don’t necessarily agree with the saying that an employee only “quits a manager.” The saying puts too much emphasis on relationship with supervisor, which according to Herzberg’s paper, is only one hygiene factor among many.)

Another insight comes from situations I’ve seen in the past, where an employee becomes dissatisfied because he (or she) perceives that he is being treated unfairly when it comes to compensation. Rarely is the individual upset about the absolute amount of comp he is receiving. More often, he is upset because he perceives that his comp is less than others, despite his perception that he is more effective and works harder. The same holds true for titles and status. If you perceive that you are not being comped fairly or are not getting the title you deserve, then you are unhappy with a hygiene factor — compensation, title, status — and this contributes to your job dissatisfaction. If your job dissatisfaction outweighs your satisfaction, you are likely to quit.

Beyond a certain point, heaping more extrinsic rewards on an individual does not necessarily motivate them. It merely ensures that she (or he) will not become unhappy with a hygiene factor. On the other hand, if you truly want to motivate someone from within, then offer her opportunities to achieve, give her recognition for her achievements, help her see how her work is fulfilling, enable her to grow and learn. It is these intrinsic motivation factors that will enable someone to stay motivated to work hard and persist, even through difficult times.

What does this mean for your career?

Too many people focus on extrinsic hygiene factors to motivate themselves and make career decisions, rather than true intrinsic motivation factors. In his book How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen discusses how a number of his Harvard Business School classmates pursued hard-charging and high-flying careers. These individuals worked extremely hard and racked up a lot of compensation, and were promoted to top management — but they weren’t happy. Their personal lives were falling apart, and they weren’t even happy with the jobs that they were in. Many of them asked themselves why they had made so many sacrifices, only to end up unhappy. Christensen argues that Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory is the answer. Most of the people who were unhappy exclusively prioritized extrinsic hygiene factors — like compensation, title, and status — when making career choices. They ignored the true intrinsic motivation factors, like achievement, fulfilling work, learning and growth.

I have written before about the importance of intrinsic motivation. You want to bias towards intrinsic motivation because you can’t control every outcome, you don’t want to be dependent on what other people think, and you can maintain a longer-term perspective. I was amazed to find this research by Frederick Herzberg (and also cited by Clayton Christensen), which further corroborates my view.

So what should you do, now that you know about the motivation-hygiene theory? The next time you are contemplating a career decision for yourself, think holistically about both intrinsic motivation factors (achievement, recognition, fulfilling work, growth and learning) as well as the extrinsic hygiene factors (comp, title, status). Beware of situations when you may be too heavily focused on the hygiene factors — which only help you avoid job dissatisfaction, but don’t necessarily contribute to job satisfaction. If you’re a manager or team lead, consider this framework when thinking about how to motivate and retain talent. It’s not just about providing better comp, perks, or a promotion — these factors will help avoid job dissatisfaction. But without attention to motivation factors, you will not have truly motivated from within, where the individual is willing to take an action of their own volition.

To learn more about motivation-hygiene theory, read Herzberg’s paper or Christensen’s book.